On Sunday evening I parked up at Whiteways Viewpoint and went for a long walk through the army ranges towards Mupe Bay. It was a super route that took in dreamy views towards Worbarrow Bay, remote empty beaches, steep clifftop strolls and rolling countryside vistas towards Poole Harbour. It also led me to stumble into the gorgeous Cynaeda dentalis, a rare moth of calcareous grassland and cliffs along the south coast that has an unusual arrangement of scales that actually make it look spiky and jagged. Perhaps, maybe, possibly a visual defence against predators, or am I just being silly?
Pyramidal Orchid above Worbarrow Bay
Bee Orchid growing on the Flower's Barrow, an Iron Age hill fort on the high ridge above Worbarrow Bay
Field Mushrooms were growing in odd clumps along the cliff tops
There was an air of excitement in the ranger's office this morning. It's been a busy week of early morning birds surveys, teaching and coasteering, but today Dom Price from the Species Recovery Trust was over at Durdle Door to survey Early Gentian, and we'd all left the date free in our diaries to head up there and help him count them.
In typical Lulworth fashion, no sooner had we pasted on the suncream than the sun disappeared and the sea fret drew in, but the thought of a day spent looking for a rare UK endemic plant on the slopes above a wondrous limestone arch was enough to extinguish any bad feelings about the weather (which got better again as the day went on!).
With the help of Dom's keen eye and a trusty handheld GPS, we found healthy populations of Early Gentian at several grid references where they've been seen before in similar surveys back in 2008 and 1998. These plants grow in only the very shortest turf where they don't have to compete with taller grasses, so to find them in the same spot over consecutive surveys is proof that the livestock grazing regime up there is working.
Quadrat sampling with a view
Red pegs were used to mark the locations of clumps of plants
Despite growing in very short turf, it's an inconspicuous plant
Interestingly, some of the largest clusters were growing immediately alongside the steps on the South West Coast Path where it leads down to the Cove, in an area that they haven't previously been recorded and that isn't often grazed. This busy route between Lulworth and Durdle Door is walked by thousands of tourists every summer, and the constant footfall has effectively done the same job as grazing cow - kept the grass short! Footpath erosion isn't usually something to rave about, but in this case it seems to be beneficial!
Ideal Early Gentian habitat alongside one of the busiest footpaths on the south coast
A couple of dazzling Cistus Forester joined in the fun
One of the habitats I've been most eager to sink my teeth
into since arriving in Dorset are the undercliffs that have formed in various spots along the coast where soft rock has slumped below a sheer cliff face, creating a slope down to the sea. These are constantly changing landscapes dominated by erosion. Crumbling scree and rock falls constantly expose areas of bare ground which in turn opens up niches for pioneer plants and insects to colonise, including such mouth-watering rarities as Morris's Wainscot and Cliff Tiger Beetle.
The undercliffs that stretch between Lyme Regis and Axmouth are easily accessible and their potential to support some cracking wildlife has well documented, but they're a long drive away on the other side of Dorset. Much closer to home are the secluded, remote and wholly unstable undercliffs nestled deep within the army firing ranges near the abandoned village of Tyneham that can only be accessed at low tide - a much better option for an afternoon invert hunt!
A quick check of the tide times and I was off to Kimmeridge Bay, where I headed towards the undercliffs via a long walk along the fossil-filled rocky shoreline of Brandy Bay, dodging a constant shower of tumbling scree as I went. The jumble of undisturbed odds and ends along the strandline indicated that I'd strayed beyond the reaches of the average tourist, with small fossils, fish bones, wayward buoys, fridges, rubber ducks and even a rotting Harbour Porpoise interspersed amongst piles of plastic, old rope and driftwood.
"Let's see how far I go"... not very far
An adventurous fridge
Rock fall had exposed lots of small ammonite fossils imprinted in the shale
Does anyone know what animal this belongs to?
Up ahead the undercliffs beckoned so I snapped out of beachcombing mode and back into wildlife mode. Yellow Horned-poppy was growing on the shale where the undercliffs met the beach, and it was here I found Enoplops scapha, a scarce bug of coastal habitats. A very hyperactive micro moth flying around the shingle nearby eventually settled on vegetation and I had my first rarity of the day, the stunning tortrix Selania leplastriana. What a moth!
I left the beach and clambered up the slopes to reach a grassy area with some huge boulders that must have come down from the huge precipice of Gad Cliff at some point. Platytes cerussella flushed with every few footsteps, and amongst the turf Macrotylus paykulli was loitering around its foodplant Rest Harrow along with Rhinocyllus conicus on Spear Thistle.
Everything else suddenly became much less interesting when a striking pink moth shot flew my face and headed on up the slope. I leapt after it, but it was travelling fast and flying over rocky ground. I considering activating my mountain goat mode but quickly figured it would end in tears if I did. Luckily, the moth dropped down and settled on a grass stem not too far away and I was treated to up close views of Oncocera semirubella, a georgeous sea cliff & chalk downland specialist that I've wanted to see for a long time.
Oncocera semirubella in-situ
A fantastic couple of hours - I think a return visit is definitely on the cards later in the summer. Might even have to bring a moth trap.
Slowly but surely the gales and storms that have battered the Dorset coast (and my caravan!) for the best part of the week are starting to ease, much to the relief of the albeit slightly battered Bee Orchids now flowering above Durdle Door.
Back on 28th April I noticed a bunch of folded birch leaves on some local heathland. I had a feeling that Apotomis betuletana was the culprit, but I didn't trust myself so decided to take one and try to rear it through to confirm. Within several days the original leaf had been completely munched through, revealing a small light green caterpillar, and it continued to demolish two more leaves before pupating on 10th May.
Since I've started full time work again it's dawned on me how knackering moth trapping actually is. At this time of year it usually means sorting the catch at 4:30am to beat the warming temperatures, hungry House Sparrows and restless moths, but that doesn't bode well for getting back to sleep and then waking up again an hour or so later for work. Props to those who manage to fit in work night moth trapping, but for me, for now, Friday night is moth night!
This time around there were 112 moths of 37 species to identify and release from a small battery-operated trap I popped up on Bindon Hill. Common Swift was the most numerous with 27 caught, but definitely the most noticeable were the 5 egg-laden female Fox Moths that turned up. Yellow Belle, Cream-spot Tiger and Purple Clay are always nice to come across, whilst L-album Wainscot and Galium Carpet were new species for me.
The sun was already high in the sky by the time I'd packed up, and it was beaming down on a still completely deserted Lulworth Cove. Skylarks were having a singing contest above me and an angry female Stonechat was "tack"-ing away nearby. It was 7:30am and there was only one thing left to do...
Stop press! It's Dorset Wildflower Week. Back-to-back botany walks every day throughout the county, led by the county's top botanists. I hadn't seen it promoted anywhere on social media and it almost completely slipped under my radar had I not been curiously searching the internet for a Dorset Flora Group to tag along with on plant hunts during the summer.
Most of the events took place during the week but I did manage to nip over to Durlston County Park last Sunday to join Ted Pratt and eight other eager customers for an afternoon walk across a fantastic stretch of chalk grassland on the tip of the Purbeck peninsula.
Ted is a household name in the world of Dorset botany. He's authored several books on the county's flora and his knowledge of plants appeared on the day to be limitless. Recovering from a back operation meant he spent the first uphill section of the walk on a mobility scooter but that didn't stop him telling apart Lesser Trefoil and Black Medick from several metres away before going on to identify every grass in the vicinity without breaking a sweat. Once he was off the scooter and on flat ground we were shown how to tackle some of the trickier groups we're likely to encounter (buttercups, thistles, umbellifers and orchids etc) before hunting down a few of the local crowd-pleasers.
The 'oaty' inflorescence and hairy stem of Downy Oat-grass